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Poetry is not self-expression

November 30, 2015

This entire Paris Review interview with W.H. Auden is worth reading, such that it’s difficult to know what to excerpt (as one must, when one is simply linking to something interesting because one does not have time to write a post this week). I suppose I’ll pull out Auden’s account of his birth into poetry; keep in mind, of course, that he said this fifty years after the fact:

I think my own case may be rather odd. I was going to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent many hours of my time constructing a highly elaborate private world of my own based on, first of all, a landscape, the limestone moors of the Pennines; and second, an industry—lead mining. Now I found in doing this, I had to make certain rules for myself. I could choose between two machines necessary to do a job, but they had to be real ones I could find in catalogues. I could decide between two ways of draining a mine, but I wasn’t allowed to use magical means. Then there came a day which later on, looking back, seems very important. I was planning my idea of the concentrating mill—you know, the platonic idea of what it should be. There were two kinds of machinery for separating the slime, one I thought more beautiful than the other, but the other one I knew to be more efficient. I felt myself faced with what I can only call a moral choice—it was my duty to take the second and more efficient one. Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written. Then, my final decision, which seemed to be fairly fortuitous at the time, took place in 1922, in March when I was walking across a field with a friend of mine from school who later became a painter. He asked me, “Do you ever write poetry?” and I said, “No”—I’d never thought of doing so. He said: “Why don’t you?”—and at that point I decided that’s what I would do. Looking back, I conceived how the ground had been prepared.

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